The creature’s oily black skin occasionally glowed with random pulses. They slid like colourful bubbles under the surface, traveling the length of one of its limbs before disappearing. It wasn’t the only physical characteristic that reminded me of an octopus. As my eyes followed another bobbing orb of colour, the appendage rolled like a tentacle toward me.
Changing shape to mimic a blindfold, the inquisitive limb blocked my sight. In near darkness, I heard a series of bizarre guttural clicks and groans. My host was trying to find the correct range of sounds in order to speak English.
The black limb retracted, grotesque but graceful, eventually curling to become a round ball of flesh that rested against the wide body.
‘I didn’t mean to startle you, Cameron,’ the thing explained. ‘Watching me unhinge my jaw may have frightened you.’
‘I appreciate your concern, Tony,’ I said, nodding my head respectfully. ‘By the way, I must say that your English is excellent.’
A limb rolled out to the side, performing what I assumed was a dismissive gesture, similar to the way a human would flick its wrist.
‘Cameron, our language has 248 vowels,’ he explained arrogantly. ‘I’m sure I can master five. Personally, I’m less amazed by my own linguistic feats and more interested to know how you can be sitting here as a physical presence.’
‘Because I’m a Red Seed?’
‘Yes Cameron,’ he said impatiently. ‘But before you begin, what is this?’
He reached out with tapered black limb to lightly touch my face, reading my shape as an antenna would. The searching flesh sharpened to a smooth point that drew the shape of my cheek and jaw as I closed my eyes and tried to remain calm despite the physical repulsion I felt.
‘What is the form you have adopted?’ he asked.
‘It’s not a re-skin, Tony.’
All his extremities suddenly recoiled. ‘Oh, please accept my apologies. I assumed—’
‘No offense taken. It’s my father’s species: human.’
‘Hmm. Can’t place it,’ he mused, studying my physique.
“From an obscure satellite—one sun, one moon.”
‘So I assume your parents met in a dream?’
‘Yes. My mother was a Projector. You know what that is?’
‘Of course. The younger ones harvest dreams. They project them back to The Audience for your entertainment.’
‘That’s right. No direct communication with the host is allowed. But my mother was intrigued by his dreams. Apparently they were unparalleled.’
‘Like what?’ he asked, leaning forward as red bulb of incandescent light rolled under the skin of his wide torso.
‘Darkly beautiful,’ I said, twirling my hands theatrically.
‘Darkly beautiful,’ Tony hissed, reaching out with three spiralling limbs that suddenly united at a single point, caressing the air between us as though my words were braille. ‘How exciting.’
‘Yes, the best kind,’ I agreed. ‘Humans have dreams of unattainable happiness. The most powerful instances are triggered by feelings of love.’
‘It’s a human emotion. Quite powerful. People kill for it.’
‘I’m intrigued,’ Tony said, leaning forward and tapping my knee with the point of a tentacle. ‘Please continue.’
‘The Audience should have put a stop to it but they were addicted. They pushed her back to that dimension, unaware of my father’s talent. Can you guess what his talent was?’
His top lip vibrated and lifted to expose long yellow incisors. Rather than a threatening gesture, it was merely the way his species looked when they considered a difficult problem.
‘I can’t guess,’ Tony admitted.
‘But that’s not uncommon,’ Tony said flippantly, leaning back in his throne and cocking his head. ‘I’ve been in a dream and vaguely understood what was happening.’
‘I’m talking about unprecedented control.’
An inquisitive but bashful tentacle slowly unravelled, until its snake-like head rested gently on my hand.
‘So he touched her in one of his lucid dreams?’
‘That’s right. She was terrified. It was the increasingly disturbing dreamscape that distressed her. I think she eventually realised that the more she ran, the more frightening the landscape and characters became. He was pushing further beyond accepted doses of lucid dreaming. He was vividly seeing the detail that no conscious mind is privy to.’
‘So he caught her,’ Tony assumed, eager to reach the climax.
‘She stopped running one night. As much as she feared the darkness he dragged behind him, she wanted to be with him. She finally felt she’d exhausted her ability to resist him.’
‘Their subconscious versions coupled.’
‘Impossible!’ Tony gasped, his inky skin suddenly alive with flashing pulses of green light.
‘That’s what everyone thought but when she returned it became obvious that something was affecting my mother—something physical.’
‘What about your father?’
‘They tried to go back. They sent their best. None of them would go into his dreams during REM. Even the oldest agents, coming out of retirement to help, had never seen anything like it. Suddenly one day it was gone. The door closed.’
‘Do you think he knew what would happen to him if he kept chasing her?’
I continued to look down into my own lap, unable to sustain my usual cool demeanour. I swallowed hard and gritted my teeth before nodding.
‘Stupid,’ Tony said, but before I could protest he clarified the statement. ‘I mean, he was one of a kind. He was the best of his kind. He should have preserved himself for the good of his people.’
‘Maybe you’re right,’ I conceded, flattered by the compliment to my father. ‘But how was he to know what it all meant? He fell in love with someone in a dream and chased her so deep that he couldn’t make it back to consciousness.’
‘What I don’t understand,’ Tony wondered aloud, ‘Is how you were born.’
‘No one talks about the birth. I think The Red Seeds consider it to be a disgusting anomaly. They’ve accepted me but the birth is still a subject they’d rather avoid. Unlike other Seed parents, my mother had to watch from a distance as I was raised. I was adopted on Earth. When I was old enough, she came to me.’
‘In the common dimension.’
‘Yes, in my dreams.’
‘So you can’t exist in The Blaq?’
Tony nodded, but his frown suggested he was holding back a question. ‘But it’s handy for The Seeds, having someone who’s able to communicate in person.’
‘Absolutely,’ I said, but I began to feel uncomfortable.
I’d told that story so many times but it seemed that I may have underestimated the bloated brute before me whose mood visibly changed.
‘You know,’ he said warily, reaching forward with several curling limbs that surrounded me like curious worms. ‘We kill any suspected vessels immediately without warning. You know that, right?’
For a moment the insinuation, like his tentacles, hovered between us. Then he suddenly retracted the limbs and issued one of those typically revolting Phaetonese chuckles.
‘You are okay,’ he conceded.
I offered a smile, feeling relief and noticing my heartbeat slowing. The timing of my mission was critical. I had to keep him engaged and trusting.
‘So Tony, what is it you wanted to see me about?’ I asked, finally getting to the point.
‘The war, of course.’
‘And how is that going?’
He did the Phaetonese version of a grimace, which involves lightly scraping the points of sharp teeth protruding from the bottom jaw across the broad calloused top lip.
I knew perfectly well how the war was going: badly. They’d fallen back from two systems previously considered secure. Their bodies were superior to their foes but there were so many Aldoui that every time a fleet of cruisers was destroyed, another would miraculously appear, not that I cared a great deal about either side.
‘They’re very stubborn,’ Tony finally said.
‘Your people are great warriors though. Surely you wouldn’t have it any other way.’
‘Oh yes, that’s true,’ he replied, ‘But we’d hate to give them too much of an advantage.’
‘I see. So how do you think The Seeds can help you?’
Tony tried to look unassuming by slouching in his ornate throne and forcing every limb to droop until they hung over the chair’s arms and back like dark vines.
‘We’ve done so much for you, haven’t we? I mean, without us, who would act as a barrier between your beloved corner of the dark dimension and the rest of physical space? Without that planet of yours—or whatever you call it—you’d just be thoughts floating in the ether.’
I bowed my head slightly, just enough to show the minimum respect and graciousness. When I lifted my chin, I could see that he was waiting for me to reach the desired conclusion.
‘Tony, you know we can’t attack them on your behalf.’
Bulbous features closed together as a frown. It looked like he was devouring himself. Then the lips popped free and slid back to their default positions.
‘Cameron, your people need to make a decision,’ he insisted. ‘Doing nothing is as bad as aiding the Aldoui.’
“We don’t know anything about them,’ I admitted. ‘We can’t find out enough to risk an excursion. We could be sending a Seed on a suicide mission. Even worse, what would happen if the Aldoui host controlled the agent and found out everything about your forces: positions, numbers, defences?’
This suddenly troubled Tony, and I congratulated myself.
‘Yes, it’s true,’ he conceded. ‘But there has to be a way for your people to help.’
‘So what did you have in mind, Tony?’
‘We have been experiencing a little difficulty in removing a general whose performance has been somewhat underwhelming. Cameron, this fool’s blunders put us all at risk. We both agree that if the Phaetonese fail, you die.’
‘Of course, Tony. We’re eager to help.’
‘I’m assuming you’re requesting an assassination. The target?’
He seemed distracted.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I was remembering what you said about your father. Fascinating.’
‘Are you okay?’
‘I feel… unusual.’
‘In what way?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ he said, disregarding the suggestion but reeling from the idea of it. ‘Impossible.’
Watching the idea screw with his fat head, I smiled inwardly. ‘So the target?’ I prompted him.
‘Yes,’ he yelped, suddenly flustered. ‘The Triptinokren.’
I allowed the silence to stretch until it was awkward.
‘Why would you do that?’ I asked, acting appalled.
‘Her strategies are poor, the implementation worse. You don’t have a problem with the… fame of the target?’
‘Not at all. Status means nothing to us. No one can be defended.’
He stared for a few seconds, looking increasingly uneasy. ‘We’ve had an enjoyable conversation, haven’t we, Cameron? Much better than you’re accustomed to?’
Slowly, the limbs were in motion, so fluidly rolling through the air that I was unpleasantly surprised to feel them gripping my shoulders and squeezing gently.
‘Sure,’ I said, breathing deliberately.
‘So Cameron, can we say we will be friends?’
I nodded while gazing at him intently, as though it was a profound, touching experience for me. ‘Friends, yes.’
The cold point of a tentacle slid up to caress the bare skin of my neck in what I assumed was meant as an affectionate gesture.
‘I’ll tell you a secret if you tell me one,’ he said, trying to be mischievous.
‘I’m game but it depends which secret you’re offering.’
‘Oh, I’m thinking of a big one.’
‘Then I may be tempted to give you something significant.’
He seemed coy, turning his grotesque face away but continuing to embrace me. ‘Like… like an explanation? How The Red Seeds do it? How they kill?’
I feigned shock. ‘I can’t believe you’d…’
Then I pretended to reconsider, looking as though I was fighting an internal battle.
‘I’m sorry, Cameron,’ he said, withdrawing his limbs.
Didn’t he notice he was being apologetic? Yes, he knew, down deep in his dense gut that something was wrong but it was so alien that he failed to grasp it.
‘No, don’t be sorry,’ I said. ‘You asked for my friendship and here I am being so defensive. That’s not the spirit of friendship. Let’s say I’ll consider it. But Tony, you must have an amazing confession to make if you think I’ll reveal my biggest secret?’
‘I do. Who do you think will be the next Triptinokren?’
Again, I acted surprised. ‘You’re too young!’
‘My uncles are both in The Circle,’ he said excitedly, tentacles suddenly rising and curling. ‘Not The Great Circle, I admit, but The First Orbit. Enough votes when you consider they both specialise in numbers.’
‘I’m impressed. I’m certainly glad you like me!’
He seemed self-conscious when he laughed, as though I was embarrassing him with the compliment.
‘Your uncles must have kept this secret well. I can’t imagine either of them winning popularity contests if anyone uncovered this plot early.’
‘Don’t worry; the old fool won’t be mourned for long,’ Tony said, gaining confidence. ‘Even her closest allies are simply waiting for your mission to be actioned.’
I shook my head, pretending to be dazzled by the brilliance of his strategy while he leered at me playfully.
‘Was that a big enough secret for you, Cameron?’ he hissed.
I stared at him for a moment. This time I pretended to act troubled, torn between my vows and the temptation to tell a great secret. I outwardly wrestled with the idea.
‘I can see you releasing yourself from the bond!’ he said excitedly, framed by tentacles that curled absently behind him like the tail of a lounging cat.
‘You’ve worn me down.’
He rubbed the inside of his legs together—something similar to a human clapping their hands. The sound was exactly what you’d expect from thousands of tiny scales rubbing against each other.
‘Okay!’ I surrendered.
He repeated the unsightly gesture again.
‘Okay Tony. Are you ready for this?’
‘It’s very simple,’ I explained. ‘We scare them to death.’
His tiny eyes searched high as the dark idea of it turned in his mind.
‘But how? The target would wake up.’
‘No, you take them down, very deep. Even if they wake up, the things they’ve seen during the few fractions of a second are enough to crush the mind. The victim could be catatonic, or so far advanced down the road to insanity that they would never recover, but they usually just die from the shock. Heart failure is the most common cause but there are many others.’
‘I’ve had terrible nightmares, even ones I still remember from childhood, but I recovered from them.’
I smiled to suggest how trivial his childhood nightmares were compared to the orchestra of horrors an experienced assassin could conduct during an attack. I didn’t need to fake that smile. ‘Imagine the mind could take any vision, sound, texture or smell and mash those things together to make something monstrous.’
‘Yes, I understand.’
‘Now imagine that your mind is not limited to your body, your experiences, your history. Your mind can travel to every other being’s nightmare archive.’
I could see his thoughts ticking over. His limbs were completely still.
‘Believe me, Tony. You wouldn’t want to wake up. You’d rather die so you’d never have to recall that nightmare.’
He suddenly scoffed. ‘Ridiculous. I’m sure my nightmares have been about as bad as they could possibly be.’
‘Monsters? The Aldoui coming after you?’
‘I’m not afraid of The Aldoui.’
“I didn’t think so,” I said. ‘That’s why I didn’t bring them with me.’
‘I’m sorry, Tony. It won’t do any good to grab me. I’m not actually here, and you’re not awake. Try to remain as calm as possible. It will be over shortly.’
As the Phaetonian accepted the truth, his dream presence pissed itself. That was the first level of fear. Then came anger. Sharpened tentacles shot towards me but suddenly froze as I took control of them.
I turned his piss into acid. Corroded by the burning liquid, he sat and sizzled while filling the imagined room with a scream that I appreciated like a great symphony. I lifted the remaining acid, along with the dissolved flesh into the air, creating a transparent curtain of chemistry and biology, and behind the curtain, shapes emerged: my collection of nightmarish oddities, handpicked from every known species’ wildest and darkest imaginations.
The horrors waited in the wings, eager to perform for Tony as I drew the curtain. Terrors stepped, flew and oozed forward while I read the official statement to my paralysed host.
‘The Phaetonese Council finds you guilty of treason. The sentence is insanity or death, and the choice is left to the discretion of the agent.’
I’m sure Tony heard the statement but he was finding it hard to focus on me.
I smiled. Maybe I was becoming overly sentimental.
‘Tony, you’ve been an excellent host and I feel obliged to return the favour,’ I conceded as the nightmares swirled behind me. ‘I choose death by terror.’